28 February 2016

Liverpool 1-1 Manchester City aet

Manchester City win 3-1 on penalties

Fernandinho 49'
Coutinho 83'

It's a special talent of Liverpool's to frustrate and disappoint you, then give you hope, and then crush your soul into infinitesimal pieces.

That said, it's also a fair result. Manchester City were the better side, Manchester City had the better chances, Manchester City's defensive organization was superb. Manchester City should have wrapped it up long before Coutinho's late equalizer, except Sterling missed two excellent chances and somehow Moreno wasn't called for a penalty.

Of course, that doesn't make it any easier to stomach.

The late equalizer – and the difference that Lallana and Origi made off the bench – was impressive, but Liverpool were lucky to get it to extra time and penalties. And after beating Carlisle and Stoke on spot-kicks in this competition, Liverpool's luck ran out. Both Mignolet and Caballero guessed right on all but Emre Can's Panenka penalty, but Caballero got his hand to Liverpool's less-than-perfectly hit attempts from Lucas, Coutinho, and Lallana. Mignolet couldn't; Navas, Agüero, and Toure's efforts were just too good.

This is how far Liverpool still have to go. They're close, closer than their record or our usual criticism suggests, but nowhere near close enough.

For 48 minutes, cup final is cup final is cup final: closely fought with chances few and far between. Liverpool had the majority of possession, but only a couple of blocked shots and a mis-hit volley to show for it. I've never seen City get into a deep defensive position so quickly, completely abandoning any attempt at a high line. They clearly remembered November at the Etihad.

Meanwhile, City had the best chance, Agüero behind Liverpool's center-backs on a long ball from defense, amazingly saved onto the post by Mignolet, and a handful of set plays that Liverpool competently dealt with. That Sergio Agüero's shot was the only shot on-target in the first half. Cup finals.

But then, just after halftime, Fernandinho's goal happened, exploiting the space behind Moreno, his wide-box shot somehow under and through Liverpool's goalkeeper. From hero to villain, The Simon Mignolet Story.

From there, Liverpool had to come out. And, as sadly usual, struggled to do so. Liverpool's equalizer was Liverpool's first shot on-target. Before Lallana replaced Moreno and Origi replaced Firmino, in the 72nd and 80th minutes respectively, Liverpool had exactly one half-chance: a Sturridge throughball for Milner, mishit high and wide.

I've no idea how City failed to add a second, routinely exposing Liverpool on the counter-attack with Liverpool needing to chase the game. Sterling screwed two Danger Zone chances wide. Moreno stuck out a leg to trip Agüero in the box but somehow wasn't whistled by Michael Oliver. A smothered shot from distance, a free kick narrowly over.

But Liverpool somehow struck back. The substitutes replaced disappointing players and made an immediate impact. The switch to a 4-Diamond-2 gave Liverpool more control in midfield, with Milner adding better support from left-back. After a spell of possession, Coutinho, Origi, Henderson, and Clyne somehow forced the ball across the top of City's box, aided by a couple of fortunate bounces, eventually out to Sturridge wide on the right, his center finding Lallana at the far post. The substitute's shot hit the post, but ricocheted straight to Coutinho on the penalty spot, squeezing his between two defenders and past Caballero.

A little bit – well, more than a little bit – of luck and multiple players getting into dangerous positions. Getting into the penalty box. And something finally happens.

And then the world went mad. Two miraculous Mignolet saves in the final five minutes, denying both Fernandinho and Toure from close range. Then another, on Agüero, who somehow got in behind Lucas and Toure, in extra time. Origi could have won it with a point-blank header in the 110th minute, wonderfully denied by Caballero. Milner incredibly attempted a back-pass header straight to Agüero, who volleyed over. A UFC match nearly broke out between Lallana and Yaya Toure, after Lallana's bad foul, then Toure's horrific foul, then Toure attempting to piledrive an opponent half his size. Four City set plays in the final two minutes, the last with Fernandinho's almost-free header in the 121st minute directed wide rather than on-target.

Sports are baffling and hysterical and perpetually amazing.

And then penalties happened. Liverpool's 14 of 17 record on spot-kicks meant nothing, and Manchester City win their fourth trophy since Liverpool last won any.

Sports are also the worst.

So here we are. Another close but not close enough performance, another disappointment, in what was almost certainly Liverpool's best chance to avoid disappointment this season. Another match where Liverpool try hard but sputter and break down upon reaching the final third, another match where Liverpool concede because of a goalkeeper error.

But it's still impressive that Liverpool got here after all that's happened this season. The unbalanced squad, the injuries, the managerial change. That Liverpool got to penalties after the first 75 minutes of that match. That Liverpool got that close with Kolo Toure and Lucas as center-backs for 100 minutes of a cup final thanks to Sakho's early concussion – the latter arguably man of the match – with Sturridge clearly less than fit after his consecutive starts, with Firmino and Moreno massively disappointing. That Liverpool were the stronger and better side in extra time shows the strides Liverpool's fitness, at the very least, has made under the new manager.

It's both worse than it seems and better than it seems. And despite the massive disappointment, it still seems as if getting better rather than worse.

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